The opening lines of the first song U2 plays at each of his performances at the Sphere in Las Vegas are a statement from a man used to declaring things.
“I’m ready,” Bono shouts from a small, almost empty stage in the middle of a huge and often not empty room. “I’m ready for the nitrous oxide.”
And then he really gets down to business. “I’m ready. I’m ready for what’s next.”
In a way, “U2 at the Sphere” is meant to embody this sentence: “What’s next.” At a time when the entertainment industry is trying to figure out what its future is, U2 has parked itself in a giant ball a few blocks from the Strip, resurrected a 30-year-old album, and found a crazy vision of the future that’s set in a terrifying desert mirage of a city makes perfect sense.
(Technically, the sphere is not in Las Vegas, but in Paradise, Nevada, because of course that is the case.)
U2’s Friday night show was one of three November dates – November 1st, 3rd and 4th – that concluded the first five weeks and 17 shows of U2’s stay at the stunning Venetian hotel venue. The band now has a month off before returning for eight shows in December, three in January and eight in February, plus whatever else they want to add in a venue that could have just as easily been made for them.
Calling the show spectacular feels somehow lacking, especially in a city where cheap spectacle is the name of the game. But even when you compare it to other big, lavish concerts with plenty of high-tech visuals – shows that span a number of previous U2 tours – “U2UV,” as this one is called, feels brand new. “You ain’t seen nothing yet,” the venue might as well say as you walk up to it. And really, you’re not.
This isn’t exactly a blueprint for where entertainment can go, unless you want to build spheres in every city. To do that, you need money, ambition, overconfidence, even more money, foolhardiness and a little brilliance. And I’m talking about both the people who built the Sphere and the people who filled it with what Hollywood calls “content.”
By the way, Darren Aronofsky is one of those people. On the nights U2 is out of town, he has a 17K sci-fi travelogue called Postcard From Earth set there that pretty much redefines what immersive cinema can be. “Oppenheimer” in the 70mm IMAX format may be impressive, but a screen that completely encloses you and hangs entirely above your head is something else entirely. (It also blows wind in your face and makes your seat wobble, which is only one thing Bono can do.)
In any case, it’s safe to say, U2’s Friday night show was not something I would have predicted when I first saw this band in March 1981 at a 1,000-seat club in the San Fernando Valley. They were on their first trip to Los Angeles at the time and had so few songs that their encore consisted of repeating three numbers they had already sung in the set.
But this baby band (Bono was in Reseda 20 and The Edge 19 that night) got bigger in more ways than one. I saw them and talked to them a lot throughout the 1980s, including at some memorable shows on their groundbreaking “Joshua Tree” tour in 1987 and 1988. That tour began and ended in Phoenix, Arizona, about 250 miles across the Mojave and Sonoran Desert from Las Vegas.
At the end of that tour, just after New Year’s Day 1989, I sat with the four members of the band in a pub in Dublin to talk about the two years that had made them the biggest band in the world. “We took so much with us along the way that it’s just extra baggage – people and houses and large motorcades and planes and helicopters and boats. …We don’t need them. We only need three and a half minutes. All we can do is simplify, omit and just make bright, shiny music. Just dream it up.”
What they came up with after that wasn’t exactly simplified – instead it was “Aehrung Baby,” the album they perform in full every night at the Sphere. The 1991 recording was a deceptive album, loud and crammed, as Bono could try out a lounge lizard figure, the fly, and pretend it was all about shiny surfaces, sensory overload and the triumph of facades: “Even better than the real thing , “as one song title put it.
But the album, recorded in Berlin shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall, used its shiny veneer of insincerity as a glittering piece of misdirection to cover a core as heartfelt as old U2 songs like “Sunday Bloody Sunday” or ” Pride (In the). Name of Love).” On one level it was an assault on the senses, but at its core it was a harrowing look at survival in a fragmented world.
And the tour that followed, the 1992-93 Zoo TV tour, was by far the least simplified thing U2 had ever done – and one of the best. I got to know them as a club band tentatively taking their first steps into arenas, and I loved them when they took on the scale of the Joshua Tree tour, but Zoo TV was an irresistibly big statement, and the bigger it was the better it was. I have vivid memories of the band at Dodger Stadium in 1992, watching smoke rise from the tops of giant towers during “Until the End of the World” and thinking I’d never seen them put on a better show.
30 years later, what made sense for Berlin in 1993 is perfect for Las Vegas in 23. The city was built to preserve sensory overload, and these days it’s a ridiculous assault on the senses, layering neon on glitter, giving it a high-tech sheen and a layer of false elegance, making it bigger, flashier and sillier.
Look north up the Las Vegas Strip when you can see past the construction, blocked lanes, scaffolding, and broken elevators and escalators that make getting anywhere a tremendous pain and you might spot the high-rise hotel with a sign above with the inscription “TRUMP”. It’s the least glaring thing on the street, as scary as the thought may be.
So if Bono hadn’t written the lines “Sunrise like a nosebleed / Your head hurts and you can’t breathe” (from “Trying to Throw Your Arms Around the World”) in this city, he might as well have. And one of the most amazing images in a show based on amazing images comes when the venue’s giant walls seem to dissolve, allowing us to look through them at the Las Vegas Strip as the band sings their new song “Atomic City.” plays. ” As they play, the parking lots turn to sand, the buildings collapse one by one, and the striking cityscape slowly turns into an empty desert, as it might have been before Bugsy Siegel and his friends started working here decades ago .
The Sphere is in some ways the first venue to not use screens and visual effects; the arena with 20,000 seats Is The screen, an enveloping interior that can transform into anything you want at the touch of a button. The spectacle of the venue and the show makes the monitor walls on the Zoo TV tour seem like child’s play, as the walls crack open and the venue appears to change shape, or as the place is flooded with Elvises – Nicolas Cage’s version, Austin Butler’s version , AI versions – during “Even Better Than the Real Thing.”
The stage, on the other hand, is minimal, a flat surface with a turntable that changes color depending on the song and an algorithm developed by Brian Eno to make each show a little different. (Like everything Brian Eno has to offer, it’s very cool and I don’t know what the hell the theories behind it mean.)
It’s easy to focus entirely on the visuals when talking about U2 at the Sphere, but the heart of the band’s music still beats on Achtung Baby classics like “One” (in my opinion, their best song ), “Until the End of the World” and the quartet of lesser-known “Aehrung Baby” songs that close this section of the set: the urgency of “Acrobat,” the grace of “So Cruel,” the brittle longing of “Ultraviolet (Light My Way)” and the haunting brilliance of “Love Is Blindness.”
Friday night’s show included an unexpected look at the 1983 “War” album, and no one in the room was aware of how timely that was. A song about terrorism and nuclear weapons, “Seconds,” was performed for the first time in 38 years. Another piece, “Sunday Bloody Sunday”, was performed for the first time on this tour, a slight surprise considering it was about bombings in Northern Ireland that killed children and civilians, and returns to the refrain: “How long must we sing this song?”
With songs like these, U2 reached back into the past to deal with the present. In an amazing setting, they also returned to the old music while finding a way forward. It reminded me of something Bono said almost 35 years ago in that pub in Dublin: “The future is not about looking back,” he said. “The future lies in reinterpreting the past.”
At the end of their first shows at the Sphere, U2 reimagines the past in what looks like a crazy and exciting future.